5 Mar 2021

'We are not coping': Ministry ordered schools to enrol 205 children in 2020

5:32 pm on 5 March 2021

The Ministry of Education last year ordered schools to enrol 205 children because there was no other way of persuading principals to accept them.

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Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

It said the students had been excluded from other schools and included 92 in Auckland, 32 in Canterbury and Chatham Islands, and 26 each in the Otago Southland region, and in Bay of Plenty Waikato.

The ministry said it had made directed enrolment orders, which were legally enforceable, for 25 students so far this year.

The Principals Federation has suggested refusing directed enrolments on the grounds that schools do not get enough support for children who have been kicked out of other schools for violent behaviour.

Principals have since told RNZ they are struggling with children from difficult backgrounds and it is nearly impossible to refuse a ministry directive to enrol them.

The principal of Ormiston Junior College in Auckland, Luke Sumich, said he had resisted directed enrolments several times without success.

"It's easy to say we should stand up and say no, but generally you're left back with yourself and your board of trustees and so saying no does become nigh on impossible," he said.

"Over the years I have said no but in the end all I was doing was harming the child's ability to get started again for a systemic problem and that's where the issue lies... it's a systemic problem but we face it on a very personal level, on a one-to-one level and the ministry need to step up and solve the systemic problem."

Sumich said schools had little choice but to push back against the ministry as a means of persuading it to provide more support, such as more funding for teacher aides.

"The day you take them is the day the ministry goes 'great that's one more child out of our hair' so you do want to try and negotiate as much support as possible. If you get the support, the ability to have a successful start for a child and maintain that works. So why wouldn't they come immediately with the support - and often they don't."

Sumich said his school had successfully enrolled several children as a result of directed enrolments, but other had not worked well.

"We've had success with two or three students and we've had complete and utter failure with two or three more. But we haven't sent them down the road to the next school, we've just said help, help and help some more," he said.

The principal of Whangārei Intermediate, Hayley Read, said she successfully refused a directed enrolment eight years ago.

"I said to the ministry 'take me to court' because we had a victim in the school and the person they were forcing to enrol into our school had violently assaulted this child who was in my school, so we had to look after the victim," she said.

Read said the Principals' Federation was right that schools were not coping, but they would have to approach directed enrolments case-by-case.

"Really it's up to the schools to decide whether or not they can handle any more of these students who are really finding it hard to fit into the system. For example, at this stage we could not honestly cope with anymore students who need support because we literally can't do it with the students we've got, let alone with a student who comes in with no support."

Read said nine times out of 10 other schools in the area refused to take children her school had excluded, meaning the parents had to go to the Ministry of Education to get a directed enrolment.

"The Ministry of Education are suggesting that we are resourced well enough so we should be able to cope and we've argued this for years that this is not the case, we are not coping," she said.

"We're not trained to do the kind of intensive therapy these students need."

A principal from a high-decile school who asked not to be named said his school was struggling with a group of students who recently moved into the area.

He said some of the children had experienced the sort of violent lifestyle depicted in the book and movie Once Were Warriors and displayed a mix of anxiety, violence and other behaviour issues.

The principal said he tried not to exclude children because that passed the problem on to other schools, but at some point he would have to make a stand to protect the rest of the school.

He said the school also had a five-year-old with severe anxiety who "trashed" his classroom every morning and the only support provided by the ministry was a grant of $800, which was inadequate.

Another principal who asked not to be named said her school had a student with serious anxiety and attachment issues which sometimes resulted in attacks on staff and other misbehaviour.

She said the school had been struggling to get help for the child since they were five-years-old but had been told there was no point applying for wrap-around assistance because the support services were already fully subscribed.

She said the situation was heart breaking and the school wanted to help the child, but she was likely to have to permanently exclude him because of his assaults.

"I feel like we're failing the child, we're failing the family but there is just no support," the principal said.

She said the school was doing all the things it was told to do to help the child but it wasn't enough.

"It's definitely beyond any of us at school. We're funding a counsellor one day a week at school for this child but that's simply not enough."